Easter — sunrise in a name

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The origin of the name Easter — one of the most important days in the Christian calendar when the resurrection of Christ is commemorated throughout the Western world — is not definitive, but it’s now generally understood that its pagan etymology dates back many centuries to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre (also Estre, Estara, Eastre, Ostara, and other variations), the goddess of sunrise. Linguistically and spiritually she is thought to be related to Hausos, the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess, and to Austron, the Proto-Germanic goddess of fertility and spring, whose feast was almost certainly celebrated on the spring equinox, a time recognized by many pagan cultures as the start of the year and marked with important celebrations. At the heart of the names of these fruitful morning goddesses is the word East — the direction of the sunrise.

The eighth-century Christian saint, scholar and linguist Bede argued in his book De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”) that the Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted not just the name of the goddess Eostre but also many of the celebratory practices of her spring feast day for their Mass of Christ’s resurrection.

That Easter is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess isn’t a universally accepted truth, however. The historian Ronald Hutton argues with Bede in his book Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, suggesting that “the Anglo-Saxon Eostur-monath meant simply ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings'”, and his theory is borne out by the fact that many of the other Anglo-Saxon month names translate as seasonal events rather than the names of gods or goddesses.

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